Michael Ignatieff is used to being admired in his native Canada, not to mention envied. His genre-leaping successes as a writer and broadcaster — reporting from hot spots in books and documentaries, defining the legacy of a major 20th-century political theorist in his biography of Isaiah Berlin, and even making the Booker Prize short list for his novel Scar Tissue — rank him among the most influential Canadian thinkers. And it doesn’t hurt that, at 56, the former BBC talk-show host retains his made-for-TV looks and effortless eloquence. But these days Ignatieff is coming in for as much criticism as adulation on forays back to Canada from his day job as a human-rights professor at Harvard University. The issue that has driven a wedge between him and many of his Canadian fans: Ignatieff was arguably the most prominent liberal supporter of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
On a recent lecture swing through Manitoba and Saskatchewan, Ignatieff took his lumps, in question-and-answer sessions, from audiences that saw his hawkish stance as letting down the liberal side. He says he was happy to hear them out. “All appearances to the contrary, I believe I’m a highly fallible person,” Ignatieff told Maclean’s in an interview in his office at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Not that he has changed his mind. He argues that anti-war Canadians were too worried about the way Washington was flexing its military muscle — and nowhere near outraged enough over how Saddam Hussein had long used his. “What I felt was disappointing about a lot of Canadian opposition to the war was that very few people seemed to give a damn about the human-rights situation,” Ignatieff says. “Very few seemed to care that peace had the consequence of leaving 26 million people inside a really odious tyranny.”
What makes Ignatieff’s chiding of Canadians more than a tiff between a cerebral media star and his home crowd is the way he links the war debate to a much deeper critique of Canada’s place in the world. His concern is not so much that Canada should have fought in Iraq, but that Canadians may be fooling themselves into believing that by staying on the sidelines their nation was holding true to its principles. Those values might be summed up as United Nations-based multilateralism, backed by a glorious tradition of peacekeeping and generosity toward poor countries. In fact, Ignatieff argues, Ottawa’s stingy foreign aid budgets and eroded contribution to UN peacekeeping — a result of perennially low defence spending — have long since rendered that glowing image of Canada’s profile abroad more myth than reality. “You can’t be a multilateralist on the cheap,” he said. “You can’t sit there bleating about the legitimacy of the UN being jeopardized over Iraq if your overseas development assistance numbers are as lousy as ours are.”
He still says “ours.” Ignatieff continues to define himself very much as a Canadian — a “patriot” at that — even though he hasn’t lived in the country of his birth for a long time. He has spent most of his adult life in Britain and the U.S. as a high-brow broadcaster, best-selling author and brand-name professor.(He pleads not to be tagged a “public intellectual,” even though he epitomizes the species.)His taste for the expatriate life might well be inherited from his father. George Ignatieff, who died in 1989, was a peripatetic diplomat in the Pearsonian generation, one of the legendary post-Second World War foreign policy innovators who are credited with forging a golden age for Canada on the international stage.
The senior Ignatieff ended his diplomatic career as ambassador to the United Nations. In fact, so deep was his father’s commitment to the UN that Ignatieff suspects he would never have supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq without the world body’s approval. The idea that he has broken away from his father’s convictions seems to weigh heavier on Ignatieff than the disapproval of many of his liberal contemporaries and a wide swath of his reading public. “If you ask me why it was tough supporting this war,” he reflects, “part of it was that I heard father calling.”
Despite those very personal misgivings, Ignatieff contends that he is staying true to the legacy of his father’s era in a broader sense. “We invented peacekeeping,” he says. “But to be a serious peacekeeper in a modern world of failed states and civil wars, you have to have tanks, helicopters, military lift. Expensive.” He points to peacekeeping debacles of recent years, from Somalia to Srebrenica to Rwanda, as evidence that blue berets need to be backed up by real military clout. But Canada’s defence budget just isn’t big enough to consistently put that sort of force behind many UN missions. And it shows. A recent ranking of commitment to peacekeeping by the Washington-based Center for Global Development ranked Canada 17th out of 21 developed nations, ahead of only the U.S., Sweden, Japan and Switzerland. And in the same report card, Canada did only a couple of notches better, 15th place, on our foreign aid spending.
For Ignatieff, though, the plight of civilians in strife-torn states is much more than the dry stuff of a think-tank’s report. What sets him apart from most other deep thinkers on foreign affairs is his first-hand experience in the hottest conflict zones. His next book, due to hit Canadian bookstores in the fall, finds him again reporting from blood-soaked ground, this time in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. Its title, Empire Lite, is Ignatieff’s term for the way America used force in temporary “nation-building” exercises in those dangerous places — and now in Iraq. Unlike Washington’s many critics, however, Ignatieff stresses that he uses the word empire not as a pejorative, but merely to try to capture the reality of U.S. potency around the globe. And he is far more willing than most who would call the contemporary U.S. imperial to acknowledge the good that can come from the exercise of that power — especially where he has witnessed the misery the worst regimes can inflict when they are left to terrorize their own populations.
He supported the NATO air war in Kosovo after he personally saw refugees pouring across the Serbian province’s borders into Macedonia and Albania in 1999, fearing for their lives in the face of ethnic cleansing by Serbian forces. “I remember the switch going in my head: this has to be stopped.” When what to do about Iraq became an unavoidable question last fall, Ignatieff’s mind turned to his experiences a decade earlier in the country’s northern Kurdish region. The independence-seeking Kurds were brutally repressed by Saddam Hussein’s army. Those memories may be what pushed Ignatieff into the regime-change camp. “I was there in late 1992, talked to victims, talked to survivors,” Ignatieff says. “We know that hundreds of thousands of Kurds either died, disappeared or were driven from their homes. So that is when the iron went into my soul on this one.”
The convictions of most academics for or against the war were, well, academic. But Ignatieff has a way of making himself heard beyond the ivory tower. He staked out a nuanced pro-war position last January in a controversial New York Times Magazine essay that generated a torrent of reaction, including a lot of shock among his friends and colleagues. He says he had trouble sleeping. While he rejects charges that he sounded like an apologist for George W. Bush’s policy, Ignatieff did write that the new U.S. empire’s “grace notes are free markets, human rights and democracy, enforced by the most awesome military power the world has ever known.”
Hard to imagine Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld quibbling with that. Suddenly Ignatieff, a self-declared “very cautious, pragmatic, liberal centrist,” found himself helping the conservatives make their case. He’d come a long way from his days demonstrating against the Vietnam War at the University of Toronto. “This time over Iraq, I don’t like the company I am keeping, but I think they are right on the issue,” he wrote while U.S. tanks rolled through the desert.
That was while the war was still raging. What about its messy aftermath? On American readiness to temporarily run the country it conquered, Ignatieff admits he miscalculated. In his role as director of Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, he has regular contact with U.S. military officers. Ignatieff says such discussions led him to believe that a U.S. invasion would be followed quickly by well-thought-out steps to restore order. “My assumptions were based on a lot of stuff we do at the Carr Center with U.S. military planners,” he says. “We’ve had conferences on this, saying, ‘Have you gone through this checklist, hospitals, museums, that sort of thing?’ And it was on the basis of this that I lent the war my ambivalent, heart-in-mouth support.”
Now he joins many observers who never supported the war in the first place in slamming Bush for “screwing up post-war reconstruction.” Yet coming from Ignatieff, that judgment may seem a little hasty, given that back in his January New York Times Magazine essay, he warned: “Order, let alone democracy, will take a decade to consolidate in Iraq.”
It may take just as long for the implications of Bush’s willingness to invade without a UN mandate to be fully digested. Ignatieff sees the decision by Bush and Britain’s Tony Blair to act on their own, after giving up on ever getting French and Russian approval at the Security Council, as a long overdue wake-up call for anyone who continues to invest too much faith in the UN — including many Canadians. “Touring Canada, what bothered me was that the only legitimacy that mattered to most of the audiences was the legal legitimacy of the UN,” he says. “Well, the UN screwed up in Rwanda, it screwed up in Bosnia — it screws up most of the time.” In a seminar for Kennedy School staff on his Iraq position, Ignatieff was even more blunt: “The United Nations is a messy, wasteful, log-rolling organization.”
This from George Ignatieff’s son? Actually, Ignatieff has not quite written off the UN. While he doesn’t see the Security Council’s go-ahead as a prerequisite for a just war, he still sees the UN, for all its faults, as “the best franchiser of legitimacy in the world and a very good program deliverer.” It’s up to countries like Canada to persuade Washington that using the UN will continue to be in its best interest much of the time. And to make that case, Ignatieff sees no need to resort to high-minded rhetoric about an international community that he scoffs at as “a fiction” anyway. Instead, he suggests, the U.S. should be made to see the pragmatic advantages of working through the UN — including spreading the cost of humanitarian interventions. “Unilateral empire is a bad choice for America,” he says, pointing out that American taxpayers may end up having to foot virtually the entire bill for helping rebuild Iraq.
As for Canada, there’s no real alternative to trying to shore up the UN as a counterbalance to Empire Lite. “A small power has to leverage alliance memberships,” Ignatieff says. He cites the creation of the International Criminal Court and the treaty banning landmines as examples of Canadian priorities that got wide international support, although not from the U.S. But to his critics, Ignatieff’s avowal that UN-based action still holds promise rings hollow. Lloyd Axworthy, the former foreign affairs minister who now heads the University of British Columbia’s Liu Institute for Global Issues, charges that in arguing for U.S. force in Iraq, Ignatieff gave up far too easily on the chance of UN weapons inspections working. Axworthy says Ignatieff’s “new liberal imperialism” takes a genuine concern for human rights in a dangerous direction. “He has drawn the wrong conclusions, frankly,” he told Maclean’s.
Axworthy holds that humanitarian convictions of the sort that underpinned Ignatieff’s support for the war “cannot be used as a licence for the U.S. to do what it likes.” As for the other big justification for the invasion — Saddam’s supposed drive to get weapons of mass destruction — Axworthy joins Bush’s many critics in pointing to the U.S. failure so far to find caches of forbidden weapons in Iraq as leaving that key part of the case for the war in tatters.
But Ignatieff isn’t shaken. No matter what turns up, or doesn’t, he says Washington’s sense of urgency over chemical, biological or nuclear weapons was genuine. “It is ideological claptrap to suppose that the Bush administration made up the risk. Saddam has been a security threat in the Gulf for 20 years. His desire to acquire these weapons was unquestionable; there isn’t a serious analyst who doesn’t think he’d wanted to have them.” And in the post-Sept. 11 era, Ignatieff argues, it was too much to ask the Americans to live indefinitely with even a slight risk that Iraq’s illicit arsenal might be made available to terrorists.
Axworthy and a lot of other Canadians are not going to buy into Ignatieff’s point of view any time soon. But that doesn’t necessarily mean his influence in Canada has been seriously damaged by his pro-war position. For one thing, he is far from alone. Andrew Cohen, a professor of journalism and international affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa and author of the current best-seller While Canada Slept: How We Lost Our Place in the World, shares many of Ignatieff’s worries — along with the view that the Iraq war was justified under the banner of humanitarian intervention. “We made a fetish of the United Nations,” Cohen says of the decision by Jean Chrétien’s government to sit this one out. And while Cohen says he too would have felt more at ease had this been “Al Gore’s war,” the Liberals appeared willing to part company with the U.S. over little more than “the assumption that anything a Republican president does is bad.”
Margaret MacMillan, author of another book now riding the best-seller lists — Paris 1919, a history of the peace negotiations after World War I — also laments what she sees as the loss of a clear sense of Canada’s mission in the world. MacMillan, a history professor at the University of Toronto, points to the long preoccupation with Quebec’s place in Canada as one reason. “A lot of our best minds were turned inward,” she says. As well, as the Cold War dragged on, the superpower polarity often made it seem futile for a small player to try to have a big impact. “We concluded that there wasn’t much we could do one way or another.” Now, though, she thinks Canadians — with the Cold War over and separatist sentiment in Quebec at low ebb — show signs of being ready to re-engage with the world.
Could Ignatieff be part of a revival of the outward-looking spirit of his father’s day? His unpopular support for the Iraq war may well dull his appeal for many Canadians. “On this one, I was apparently on the far right of Canadian opinion,” he admits. “So I didn’t like it.” And he is worried about leaving any impression that he is sniping from afar. “Don’t present my views as giving Canada lectures,” he says. “It’s up to Canadians to make some choices.”
But if Ignatieff is taking pains to be respectful, he is too passionate to ever be truly reticent. Early this month, he was in Ottawa, privately briefing top officials on the way he sees the world unfolding. So, as usual, insiders are listening. And the release of his latest book this fall will keep his opinions in the air for everyone else who cares to pay attention. Even for Canadians who felt betrayed by his position on the Iraq war, the chance to keep on seeing the world through Ignatieff’s eyes may prove to be an experience too vivid to give up.
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